Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book Review: "When All Is Said" by Anne Griffin

Imagine you're on travel by yourself and you decide to spend an evening at a local pub. You're seated at the bar and one of the bar's patrons starts speaking—partially to you and partially to himself.

With nothing else to do, you listen to the man tell his stories. At first you're not sure what to make of it all, but little by little, you find yourself fairly engrossed in what he has to say. Sometimes his conversation is entertaining, sometimes it meanders a little too much, and sometimes it's even a bit emotional.

This is precisely the way it felt reading Anne Griffin's charming debut novel, When All Is Said. In this case, the man is 84-year-old Irish widower Maurice Hannigan, and the pub is actually the bar of a grand hotel in town. With his wife dead for two years and his adult son living in America, Maurice is usually alone, but this isn't just any night.

Tonight Maurice has decided to toast five special people in his life, and give them the due he never has. And with each toast comes a recollection of memories about that particular person, many of whom are now gone. Maurice's stories tell of love, fear, grief, family, courage, wonder, and frustration, of feeling incapable of expressing your opinions until the moment has passed you by. He's unafraid to make himself look the fool, the villain, or the one who causes pain, but he's also unafraid to illuminate his own pain, sorrow, and regret.

There are people we spend our entire lives with who touch us, and there are those who leave their mark after only a short time. There are situations that define us, and our actions during those times stay with us, showing us that a moment's victory may actually lead to a lifetime of regret. But a person's life is a long series of memories, people, scores that are settled and those that never are, hearts we won and those we lost.

"I'm here to remember — all that I have been and all that I will never be again."

When All Is Said feels so much like the stories told by kindly old men in pubs, because that's what it is. Obviously by having the book narrated in the first person you lose the perspectives of the other characters in the book, and you're left only to wonder what they thought about different situations. But what you gain in this case is the amazing persona of Maurice Hannigan, who is willing to lay bare his own flaws while sharing what five people have meant to him.

A number of people whose literary tastes I share have waxed fairly poetic about this book, so I wonder if that built it up a little too much for me. I enjoyed this but felt each of Maurice's stories went on a little too long, and while there were moments that choked me up, I was surprisingly not as moved as I thought I'd be given what a colossal sap I am.

Don't get me wrong, this is lovely and charming story, but it just didn't grab me quite as much as it has others. Maybe I was affected with Grinch syndrome while reading this, in that my heart was two sizes too small. There's no other reason to explain it, because Griffin has created a memorable character in Maurice, and his story is beautiful and touching.

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